the observatory

Gamey Green Jobs Coverage

NYT, others hack off slices of Brookings-Battelle report
August 26, 2011

On Tuesday, climate blogger Joseph Romm blasted a New York Times article about green jobs for ignoring “explosive” growth in that sector. It was valid criticism even though Romm, in turn, had some distortions of his own.

The Times’s piece argues that President Obama’s pledge to create 5 million green jobs over ten years, and California Governor Jerry Brown’s promise to create five-hundred thousand clean-technology jobs in the state by the end of the decade, look like “a pipe dream.” Produced by the San Francisco-based Bay Citizen, which provides coverage of the Bay Area to the Times, the article is pegged, in part, to a July report by the Brookings Institute and Battelle’s Technology Partnership Practice, which assessed green jobs nationally and regionally.

“[The study] found clean-technology jobs accounted for just 2 percent of employment nationwide and only slightly more — 2.2 percent — in Silicon Valley,” according to the article, which was published on August 19. “Rather than adding jobs, the study found, the sector actually lost 492 positions from 2003 to 2010 in the South Bay, where the unemployment rate in June was 10.5 percent.”

It’s a selective quotation from the report that supports the thesis presented in the article’s headline: “Number of Green Jobs Fails to Live Up to Promises”—although it’s likely the Times wrote the headline to suit the Bay Citizen’s reporting. The Brookings report repeatedly acknowledges than such jobs are, for now, a “modest slice” of the US total, it is actually quite sanguine about progress in the “clean economy” and prospects for future growth.

“The clean economy increasingly looks like a promising location for the emergence of significant new technologies, processes, and industries that will shape the next economy and generate new jobs…” the report says, “Though modest in size, the clean economy employs more workers than the fossil fuel industry…”

Romm, who runs the blog Climate Progress for the liberal Center for American Progress, correctly charged that the article misled readers by ignoring many details of the report, as well as its overall message. Unfortunately, he too overplayed his hand. At one point, he quotes a contributor to his blog who had earlier reported that the Brookings report showed that, “From 2003 to 2010, the clean economy grew 8.3% — almost double what the overall economy grew during those years.”

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In fact, between 2003 and 2010, the clean economy expanded at an annual rate of 3.4 percent, compared to the national economy’s 4.2 percent. It was only during the middle of the recession, from 2008 to 2009, that the clean economy grew faster, at a rate of 8.3 percent, than the rest of the economy. And that was “likely due, in part, to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which channeled large sums of public spending towards clean energy projects,” the report noted.

Between 2003 and 2010, it was only the youngest and smallest sectors of the clean economy—thirteen of the thirty-nine sectors assessed in the report—that grew 8.3 percent annually. This was the “explosive” growth that Romm accused the Times and the Bay Citizen of ignoring. It pertains to the energy-related sectors (wind, solar, smart grid, etc.) that most reporters and the public associate with green jobs. Brookings chose the word “explosive” to describe the pace of job growth in those sectors. It also used the word “torrid.”

Are they the right terms? Sort of.

Between 2003 and 2010, the solar thermal industry grew at an annual rate of 18.4 percent, the wind power industry at 14.9 percent, and the solar photovoltaic industry at 10.7 percent, according to the report. That seems pretty explosive until you consider that those rates translated to the creation of only 40,000 jobs over seven years. “Over 90 percent of clean economy jobs lie in older segments that provide goods or services that solve long-appreciated environmental problems,” according to the report. “Many of these jobs reside in government but others populate commercial segments like lighting, water-efficient products, green building materials, recycling and reuse, and pollution reduction.”

To be fair, Brookings repeatedly acknowledged that the large growth in the younger, clean-tech sectors stems from “small bases.” In other words, the absolute number of jobs was relatively small, making the relative growth seem more significant. But the bottom line, according to Brookings, is that “today’s clean economy establishments added half a million jobs between 2003 and 2010.” That’s not torrid enough to meet Obama’s target.

Romm glossed over that, although he was correct to argue that, to some extent, the Bay Citizen’s article was “premature”—as he put it, like writing the story, “Space program fails to live up to its promises,” in 1963. We are only two years into Obama’s ten-year pledge, Romm pointed out. Brookings’s report took that into account, but the Bay Citizen did not.

“An issue with the clean economy is that it’s growing very rapidly in some of the newer, much discussed renewable-energy, smart-grid, energy-efficiency areas—the so-called clean-tech bundle of segments—but those remain pretty small thus far,” said the Institute’s Mark Muro, a co-author of the report, in an online video companion piece. “So, while I think the intuition and promise of large-scale job creation is warranted, the present-day scale of these industries means that they’ll be moderate contributors for the next three to four years, or five years, and won’t immediately be able to offset the massive job losses we’ve seen in the last recession.”

It’s the same point that Van Jones says he tried to make to the Bay Citizen, which didn’t hang its argument on Brookings alone. In e-mails to Romm, Obama’s former green-jobs adviser claims the outlet misrepresented him. The last paragraph of its article reported that Jones had “scaled back” from his position that green jobs will be an be an economic plus.

“Contrary to the article, I explicitly told the reporter that I stand beside my prediction that the clean-energy sector will create millions of jobs…” Jones wrote to Romm. “The recession cost us nearly 10 million jobs, and there are an additional 15 million underemployed people in the United States. To fix America’s economy single-handedly, the clean energy sector would have to generate 10-25 million jobs, all by itself. We never said we could create 10-25 million US clean energy jobs, under any scenario.”

The Bay Citizen omitted other important caveats, such has the fact that the fastest-growing, albeit smallest, sectors of the green economy (those clean-tech jobs) are “producing a desirable array of jobs, including in manufacturing and export-oriented fields.” Or that, “The clean economy offers more opportunities and better pay for low-skilled workers than the national economy as a whole.”

Worse still, the Bay Citizen reported that the southern Bay Area (San Jose, Sunnyvale, and Santa Clara) lost 492 green jobs between 2003 and 2010. But it didn’t mention that the surrounding San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont area added 15,784 jobs, observed Cai Steger, an energy policy analyst and blogger for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Those data are available in an excellent interactive map that accompanied the Brookings report, which allows users to research green-job growth/destruction in the country’s hundred largest metropolitan areas.

The map is probably the most useful to journalists, although many didn’t make the most of it. Following the report’s release, dozens of papers around the country picked it up, publishing stories focused on how their local clean economies stacked up against the rest the country. Unfortunately, most of these publications ran just a few hundred words and didn’t go into any depth. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that Utah is “lagging in ‘green jobs,’’’ and the San Jose Mercury News reported that the “Bay Area is a ‘clean economy’ powerhouse,” but neither dug into why.

Some papers did better. According to Brookings, one its report’s most important findings is “the fact that the number of jobs in ‘clustered’ clean-economy establishments grew significantly faster than did the number in their more isolated counterparts.” A story by the Times Union in Albany, New York, got the word “cluster” into the lead and followed up by explaining that “many of the workers are employed at sites such as the Albany NanoTech complex along Fuller Road or General Electric’s renewable energy headquarters in Schenectady.” An article in the Knoxville News-Sentinel, whose hometown ranked fiftieth in the nation for green jobs, had a nice description of eastern Tennessee’s “Innovation Valley,” and included an interview with Thom Mason, its chair and the director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Jonathan Rothwell, a senior research analyst with Brookings and one of the report’s co-authors, told The Detroit News that Michigan, the only state to lose green jobs, shed most of them outside the city, which is “clustered with manufacturing companies that spun off to do work in areas such as in battery technology.” Rothwell suggested to the Tusla World that if its city’s managers wanted to look at ripe areas for clustering, “Those would include wind and appliance and waste-to-energy as well as air and water purification technologies.”

Colorado’s Daily Camera boasted that, “Although Boulder was not one of the largest metropolitan areas included in the study, Brookings officials provided a similarly focused clean-economy profile to the Camera because of the region’s ‘super’ performance on key measures, officials said.” And the San Francisco Chronicle, while not mentioning the report at all, wrapped its key points into a story about Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom’s “plan for California’s economic future,” whose recommendations relied, to some extent, on input from Brookings.

Brookings was obviously promoting the report strenuously, and was well prepared for loads of interviews. Its advice will reflect its own priorities and should be checked against other points of view. The Institute is quite clear, however, that it found a “mixed picture” where green jobs are concerned. It also is clear that its report has numerous limitations and discusses them, as well as its methodology, at length:

The clean economy remains an enigma: hard to assess. Not only do “green” or “clean” activities and jobs related to environmental aims pervade all sectors of the U.S. economy; they also remain tricky to define and isolate—and count.

If the Bay Citizen was too dour, though, some of its competitors were too optimistic. The headline on a short, simplistic USA Today articleread, “Green jobs are scoring greener salaries; Pay and hiring are up in booming clean-tech sector,” as if that were the case nationwide. A piece in the Chicago Tribune made the “seminal” study seem a little more end-all-be-all than it actually is. During an interview with Platts Energy Week Brookings’ Muro freely admitted the data will continue to evolve. was more circumspect, and Bryan Walsh’s column for Time was more comprehensive.

It was nice to see the Brookings report, which is undoubtedly a useful piece of research, get so much coverage. It’s just a shame that so many news outlets carved off only the pieces most useful to them.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.